If the big-screen trend for the endless creation myth-chasing and backstory-probing of troubled superheroes is getting you down – if you’re suffering from Lycra lassitude or cape fatigue of any sort, in fact – go to the cinema and see the new documentary National Gallery.
The film, from the 84-year-old éminence grise of non-fiction filmmaking Fred Wiseman, is a masterclass in making a lot of work look effortless: 170 hours of rushes were shot to make a three-hour film in which a narrative appears slowly on the movie’s horizon as you walk rather than fly towards it. Take it slow – that’s the ticket.
Wiseman’s first film, 1967’s Titicut Follies, scrutinised a hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts, 1970’s Hospital and 1985’s Racetrack were interrogations of how familiar yet strange places operate; 2013’s At Berkeley inspected the storied campus of the University of California. National Gallery shares DNA with those films by just showing: there is no voiceover to pass judgement, no captions to explain who anyone is, no music to add drama (save for the museum version of a dawn chorus: the whizzing and whirring of a flock of floor polishers). It just happens.
What just happens? People look at pictures as we look at pictures of them looking, restorers talk about varnish and find the soul of Rembrandt, the director of the gallery and his marketing team discuss whether his building should be used as the finishing line for a charity marathon and we learn a little about what a public gallery is for. Security staff sit and guard (and we see how watching is different from looking), carpenters make frames, managers juggle budgets and exhibitions are mounted. The stars of the show are the witty and passionate curators and their talks; “Delilah has perhaps eventually come to feel love and has finally slept with Samson and he has fallen asleep… this can happen,” says an expert with as excellent comic timing as Rubens’ painting displays his mastery of light, shade and allegory.
Wiseman is as tireless as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea in his wily pursuit of the marlin, taking us fathoms deep with his subjects: staying up with his camera rolling to capture carpenters shifting an exhibition’s temporary walls long after the last visitor has exited the gift shop; waking up a few hours later to clock in with that dawn chorus of cleaners.
National Gallery is no cosy art love-in though, and Wiseman is not without his subtle editorialising – all done with a precise cut just here or a pointed lingering on a subject’s exit line there. What is Wiseman hoping we might think as he trains his camera on quick-fix media interviews with staff suddenly fluent in public-relations patter? Is he smiling inscrutably behind his tripod as the broadcaster Matthew Collings and his producer fail to see eye to eye over Turrner’s use of water as a metaphor in “The Fighting Temeraire”? I think he might. He’s left it in, anyway. It can be tough to talk about art.
You can hear my interview with Fred Wiseman on this week’s Culture show on Monocle 24 but be sure to see National Gallery itself because it is classic: subtle, refined, amusing and endlessly eye-opening. There are more superheroes within those walls than Marvel could ever wish for.
Robert Bound is culture editor for Monocle. 'Culture with Robert Bound' broadcasts every Monday at 19.00 London time.